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Government settles suit over veterans campus

LOS ANGELES — Federal officials announced Jan. 28 they have agreed to settle a lawsuit in which the ACLU accused the Department of Veterans Affairs of misusing its sprawling West Los Angeles health campus while veterans with brain injuries and mental impairment remained homeless.

Under the settlement, the VA will develop a master land-use plan for the campus, identifying sites for housing homeless veterans.

“This agreement offers the VA a historic opportunity to build new community relationships in Los Angeles and continue the work needed to end veteran homelessness here,” VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald said. “VA is proud of the progress we’ve made in ending veteran homelessness — down 33 percent since 2010 — but we won’t be satisfied until every veteran has a home.”

Under the agreement, McDonald and attorneys for the lawsuit’s plaintiffs will develop by Feb. 13 a written plan to help end veteran homelessness in Los Angeles. The city has the nation’s largest population of homeless veterans with and without disabilities.

The plan will focus on serving veterans, particularly homeless veterans, women veterans, aging veterans and veterans who are severely disabled.

McDonald said he would appoint a special assistant, who will report directly to him, to oversee the plan’s implementation with the necessary resources and support.

“This historic agreement, forged through the leadership of Secretary McDonald, creates a partnership that will be invaluable to help end veteran homelessness in Los Angeles, provide needed medical care and services, and make concrete our commitment to those who served our nation’s highest calling,” said Ron Olson, an attorney for the organizations bringing the lawsuit.

Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, D-Culver City, praised the settlement, noting that the VA’s West L.A. campus, is located in his 54th Assembly District.

“The settlement between the U.S. Veterans Administration and American Civil Liberties Union will help us achieve the goal laid out by President Obama — ending homelessness among the men and women who served in our nation’s armed forces and helped preserve the freedoms we enjoy as Americans,” Ridley-Thomas said.

“We’ve made progress towards the goal of ending veterans’ homelessness over the last few years, but I am not satisfied. There are still far too many veterans in Los Angeles who remain homeless. I am hopeful that the terms of the agreement that has been reached — including the creation of a master plan for the VA’s West L.A. campus — will help us create safe and secure residences for every remaining homeless veteran in L.A.”

Ridley-Thomas pledged to work in collaboration with the state’s Department of Veteran Affairs, VA officials, Los Angeles city officials, ACLU representatives, veterans’ organizations and surrounding communities to ensure that the agreement results in the creation of “new housing that our servicemen and women and our region, state and nation can be proud of.”

In its 2011 suit, the ACLU of Southern California argued that the VA should develop housing for veterans on the 387-acre campus. The suit accused the agency of illegally leasing land to UCLA for its baseball stadium, a television studio for set storage, a hotel laundry and a parking service. It also made a land deal with the private Brentwood School for tennis and basketball courts.

A federal judge in 2013 struck down the leases. More recently, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero halted construction of an amphitheater on the property.

“The Department of Justice is pleased to have come to a positive resolution in this nearly four year litigation,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Joyce R. Branda for the Justice Department’s Civil Division.

“Ending this litigation will facilitate the continuing partnership between the Department of Veterans Affairs and key stakeholders to end veteran homelessness in greater Los Angeles in 2015 and beyond.”

The settlement comes as officials conduct Los Angeles County’s biennial homeless count. Los Angeles County has more than 4,200 homeless veterans, the most in the nation.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has promised to house every homeless veteran in the city by the end of the year, part of a national effort led by the Obama administration to get those who served off the streets.

“We must always keep our sacred promise to ensure that all veterans get the care and benefits they have earned,” Garcetti said in response to the lawsuit settlement. “That’s why I’m very pleased that through this settlement the West Los Angeles veterans campus will provide housing and more resources to our veterans and help us end veteran homelessness in Los Angeles.”

The campus, wedged between Westwood and Brentwood, is the largest undeveloped property on the Westside, and part of the VA’s largest health center. The grounds were deeded to the government more than a century ago as a home for old soldiers.

For 80 years, the VA campus provided shelter and services for thousands of disabled veterans. In the 1960s, it stopped accepting new residents, and structures were either converted to other uses or allowed to deteriorate.